Martin Luther King Jr. Day is not just a time in which people take off from work or school; it is also a national day of service in which numerous secular and religious organizations oversee volunteer projects to better their communities.
In 1994, 11 years after MLK Day became a national holiday, Congress designated the annual observance as a day of service and assigned the Corporation for National and Community Service to oversee the effort.
“MLK Day of Service is intended to empower individuals, strengthen communities, bridge barriers, create solutions to social problems, and move us closer to Dr. King's vision of a ‘Beloved Community,’” explained the CNCS.
The Christian Post talked with a few churches participating in the day of service about what they are doing on the holiday and what role they believe churches should have in advancing King’s dream of equality.
‘For King, faith and politics were integrated’
Ruth Frey, director of Justice and Reconciliation at Trinity Church Wall Street in New York City, told CP that her church has participated in the Day of Service for the past few years.
“In past years, Trinity has worked with local Jewish and Muslim communities on food justice activities and has welcomed people to participate in Trinity’s regular Brown Bag Lunch program. We have also participated in the New York Cares Day of Service,” explained Frey.
For 2019, Trinity Church will offer an interactive program titled “This is America” that is meant to educate people about the systemic nature of poverty.
Frey told CP that people all too often forget that King “was first and foremost a Christian minister and preacher” with his beliefs on justice coming “directly from his faith and his understanding of Christian scripture.”
“King is best known for his work on racial justice. But shortly before he was assassinated, King focused the nation’s attention on economic inequality and poverty,” continued Frey.
“For King, faith and politics were integrated. And he called for changing systems that are set up to oppress the poor and people of color. His faith and his politics focused on human flourishing, rather than oppression. The American church is called to do the same.”
Frey hopes that their interactive program “raises questions and calls people to take action to change systems that keep our neighbors in cycles of poverty.”
‘The position of the Church should be always to promote dialogue’
Msgr. Timothy J. Shugrue, pastor of St. Michael Church in Cranford, New Jersey, explained to CP that his parish was participating in a project fair coordinated by the Cranford Clergy Council and the Cranford Interfaith Human Relations Committee.
“In addition to encouraging individual parishioners to contribute to, and/or volunteer for, the Day's activity, we have collected from parishioners a variety of items for personal care bags and cleaning products bags,” noted Shugrue, “and for Priority Mail Boxes for food care packages for active-duty troops.”
“Items will also be supplied to Raphael's Life House, a residential shelter for pregnant women, in Elizabeth, Homefirst (Plainfield, NJ), St. Joseph's Mission (Elizabeth) and Food for Friends (Rahway, NJ).”
Shugrue told CP that he believed “the position of the Church should be always to promote dialogue and person-to-person understanding of the challenges facing so many people in our country.”
“I hope participants in the Day of Service activity will be more aware of their role as links in the chain that connects all people,” said Shugrue.
Volunteer, prayer and reflection
Ana V. Kelly, spokesperson for the Catholic Community of St. Matthias in Somerset, New Jersey, said that her church does days of service not only on MLK Day, but about six times a year.
“Parishioners volunteer to serve at a site for the morning. Usually, we have between three and five sites in the neighboring community that need assistance that day,” Kelly explained to CP.
“Everyone gathers at the parish at 9 am for prayer and reflection. Then the volunteers go in small groups to one of the sites and work till lunchtime.”
For the holiday weekend, St. Matthias volunteers will work at Raritan Valley Habitat for Humanity ReStore, Ronald McDonald House of New Brunswick, Franklin Township Food Bank, and the Pregnancy Aid Center of Raritan.
They are also starting a new activity for middle school students in conjunction with their congregation’s Faith Formation program, their parish school, and the Center for FaithJustice.
“Students arrive at St. Matthias at 8:30 am. The morning begins with a prayer service and a presentation on Martin Luther King, Jr., as the students prepare to be sent to their ministry sites in small groups,” explained Kelly.
“Students then serve those at their site from about 9:45 AM to 12:15 PM, and return back to St. Matthias for lunch. After lunch, the students participate in a reflection and small group time. The day ends with a closing prayer service, which finishes around 2:30 PM.”